William Beutler on Wikipedia

Banned from Wikipedia… Almost

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on October 20, 2010 at 10:29 am by William Beutler

I presume that a fair number of Wikipedia’s casual readers and participants are at least vaguely aware of the fact that bad behavior can get one banned from the site — of course I mean from editing it, not from reading it. But what I’ll bet is less known is that there is another type of punishment which is less extreme, but probably is no more fun to the punished: topic banning. Wikipedia defines this as follows:

The user is prohibited from editing either (1) making any edits in relation to a particular topic, (2) particular pages that are specified in the ban; and/or, (2) any page relating to a particular topic. Such a ban may include or exclude corresponding talk pages. Users who violate such bans may be blocked.

Wikipedia has other editing restrictions — article bans, requirements to discuss changes — but topic banning is the most common. At present, Wikipedia bars more than 100 editors from making certain types of edits.

And there is a pattern to topic bans as well, one that mirrors Wikipedia’s most controversial topics: balkanized Eastern Europe, disputed Israel and Palestinian territories, ever disputatious Scientology, and other topics also found on Wikipedia’s internal List of controversial issues.

It comes as no surprise that climate change is one of them, and it’s on that particular topic that Wikipedia has just topic-banned a long-time contributor. The person in question is William Connolley, a British writer, Scienceblogs contributor and former climate researcher. Unusual for most Wikipedia editors, Connolley is himself the subject of a Wikipedia article himself. As an aside, I’m not sure that Connolley is strictly “notable“, but he was featured briefly (and sympathetically) in a 2006 New Yorker article about Wikipedia.

Most of the commentary on Connolley comes from the political right, even to the point of inspiring his own watchdog site and the occasional newspaper column. However, the most consistent (persistent?) coverage of Connolley’s Wikipedia editing has undoubtedly been provided by Anthony Watts of the blog Watts Up With That? Watts’ take on Connolley’s banning is here.

I’m not particularly familiar with Connolley’s activity or the controversies extending therefrom, but more than a few dedicated Wikipedians certainly are. He is among the most carefully-scrutinized Wikipedia editors — the discussion page associated with his account is the 11th-most “watchlisted” Talk page, following only a couple of technical pages and those belonging to Wikipedia’s best-known contributors.

Getting to the bottom of this all is no simple matter, and I confess that I’m going to punt: Wikipedia’s arbitration committee took nearly two months and some 36,000 words to arrive at the decision. You can read the whole thing, or just the section where members of the committee voted to restrict his editing activity. If I understand it correctly, the ultimate reason for the actions taken was not the material he sought to introduce but the attitude he showed toward editors who disagreed with his point of view. For Connolley’s point of view, his commentary on the decision can be found on his own Talk page, and in a post at Scienceblogs.

If I’ve missed anything important, please add it in the comments.